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Bulgarian International Aviation Festival Plovdiv-Krumovo

24 May 2009

The 2008-2009 winter was long and cold in Belgium, yet not nearly cold enough to reach that warm spot I keep in my heart for Bulgaria. What better way then to kick off the new airshow season than with a visit to Bulgaria's prime aviation event, the Bulgarian International Aviation Festival (BIAF) 2009?

BIAF "Sky for all" is held on the opposite side of Krumovo international airport near Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city and arguably the most attractive with its mix of old and modern, from a Roman amphitheater to a 21st century city centre. This makes it an ideal staging area to visit not just the airshow, but also the stunning surrounding Rhodopi mountains.

Krumovo is best-known to tourists using charter flights to the nearby skiing resorts, but it is generally quiet the rest of the year, so regular traffic did not interfere with the displays.

As always, the display programme of BIAF was quite limited. Still, this year's edition featured more acts than the catastrophic 2007 edition, when the flying display consisted of the RAF Red Arrows and the Patrouille de France. Of particular note this year was the participation of the Bulgarian air force, only seldom seen outside its own borders.

BIAF is held adjacent to the Bulgarian National Aviation Museum. This open-air complex has a unique collection of aircraft which were in service with the Bulgarian air force during World War II and the Cold War. Thanks to the hard work of dedicated volunteers, most of these remarkable exhibits, including a TU-2, Yak-9, Yak-23 and Il-28 Beagle among many others, are in good condition considering their exposure to the elements. This museum alone made the event worth a visit.

Mysteriously, one of the stars of the static park, a Greek Mirage 2000, was parked among the flying display participants, hundreds of metres away from the public. 2 foreign fighters in competition to succeed Bulgaria's aging fighter fleet, the US F-16C Fighting Falcon and a mock-up of the Eurofighter Typhoon, did make it to the static display, joining a range of general aviation types and active aircraft from the Bulgarian air force inventory. Sadly, some Bulgarian types were not present, perhaps most surprisingly their new C-27 Spartan. Still, what was present was plenty interesting, though without fences around the airframes, it was a photographer's nightmare.

In order to allow the Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev to attend the flying display, the pre-show with ultra-lights and model aircraft was extended. One of the latter even shot of fireworks during its presentation, taking everyone by surprise.

On to the real flying then. Opening the display was a single Bulgarian Air Force Mi-17 Hip proudly flying the Bulgarian flag. Following this was a replica of the DAR-1, a Bulgarian biplane used for pilot training and glider towing from 1928 until World War 2. Svilen Ivanov gave a nicely flowing demo of aerobatic flying with a Pitts S2, but it was the Bulgarian air force which stole the show.

A lone Jet Ranger opened their contribution with 2 passes, quickly followed by the menacing look of the Mi-24 Hind battlefield helicopter. This provided top-cover and close air support for a Hip dropping off ground troops. A Cougar picked up a casualty with its winch shortly afterwards, while the Hip picked up the troops still standing after the simulated fight.
The SU-25 Frogfoot was up next, flying a routine showcasing basic ground attack patterns for this tank buster. Seeing this plane in action was a real treat, as the SU-25 is a rare bird nowadays. The Mig-21 demo was performed high and far away, but the Mig-29 made up nicely for this with a display of its brute power and agility in basic fighter maneuvers, showing why it's such a formidable dogfighter. These last two aircraft did not operate from Krumovo itself but flew in from their home base Graf Ignatievo.
What made these demonstrations so remarkable was the fact that they were not flown by 'regular' display pilots but were presented especially for the occasion. As a result, the routines consisted of tactical maneuvers and were less oriented towards aerobatics. The practical advantage of this is the limited time necessary to rehearse the demonstration. For the spectators, the attraction lay in witnessing real-life tactics.

Foreign participation came from the Serbian Aeroclub with a G-2 Galeb training aircraft, the Turkish Stars and the French Air Force Alpha Jet solo display, providing a mix of the graceful Belgian Alpha Jet demos of yesteryear and the energetic RAF Hawk routine. The French clearly have a winner with this one!

Taxiing a plane with its propeller turning through the crowd is something which would certainly raise a few eyebrows with safety officers in Western Europe, as would the crowd overflights, although these were at relatively safe altitudes.
If there is one gripe for the public, it should be the lack of a proper fixed fence at the flightline. A plastic ribbon is simply to flexible and therefore ineffective at holding people back, which means the public quickly strayed several metres beyond the crowdline. Fixed fences are preferable for safety reasons and to achieve a straight crowdline allowing a greater number of people an unimpeded view. Still, this is a minor complaint, because contrary to popular expectations, the show proved to be an enjoyable day out, providing excellent value for money for the couple of thousands who showed up. For a large public event, catering prices were also more than reasonable, even by Bulgarian standards. Commentary, broadcast through giant speakers in the static park, was sparse and seemed mostly limited to listing the acts which were coming up, not providing any background on the aircraft which were performing, so some improvement there would be useful too.

BIAF may not have the prestige of some other, sometimes over-rated airshows in Europe, but if 2009 is anything to go by, it has a bright future ahead. Smoothly run, its relaxed atmosphere ensures a terrific day out, and Bulgaria itself ensures sunshine, if not in the sky, then certainly in the hearts of visitors.

Report by Chris Janssens
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Lay-out and content by Chris Janssens, 2005 - present